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Council to decide on exemption for Cell Science Center housing

Lake Placid developer Joseph Barile presents his plans for a housing complex at the former W. Alton Jones Cell Science Center to the North Elba Town Council on Tuesday. (Enterprise photo — Elizabeth Izzo)

LAKE PLACID — The North Elba Town Council has set a public hearing on a proposed land reclassification for the former W. Alton Jones Cell Science Center property, where a local developer plans to build a housing complex.

The council’s decision is complicated by a request from the developer to be exempt from the town’s code regulations for affordable housing. That prompted heated debate at Tuesday’s meeting.

Developer Joseph Barile’s proposal — which would include a mix of apartments for rent, condominiums for sale and townhouses for lease — is one of two new Lake Placid housing projects in the works right now.

Both complexes, this project and a separate one on Wesvalley Road being undertaken by Regan Development, are still in preliminary phases. But both would need to be completed within the next two years for use by athletes during the 2023 World University Games. After the games, both complexes would transition to long-term affordable housing, which is in short supply within the village of Lake Placid.

Barile’s sprawling campus on Old Barn Road could include 20 different buildings covered with solar panels, some with underground parking garages beneath them. It would also have an amphitheater with solar panels and a renewable energy tower, playing fields, an outdoor terrace, a trail network, a pool, a day-care center and multiple parking areas, according to the project designs. The existing Cell Science Center building would be demolished.

The goal, according to Barile, is for this housing project to be net-zero energy. That’s why, in addition to the solar panels, Barile wants to install geothermal fields, triple-pane windows for energy efficiency — plus greenhouses and community gardens for both residents and the broader community. The footprint of the complex would also retain a lot of green space, including what Barile described as a “village green” larger than a soccer field at the center of the property. He’s also planning to build a pond, both for stormwater and recreation.

At least 66% of the 360 housing units expected to be built within this complex would be deed-restricted, barring them from use as short-term vacation rentals and requiring they be rented at a specific rate affordable to residents within a certain income bracket.

The town council’s upcoming decision of whether to allow the land to be reclassified from “gateway corridor” to “planned development” is one of the last hurdles before the developer can move forward with submitting plans to the town-village Joint Review Board.

If authorized by the council, the reclassification has a provision attached that would grant Barile an exemption from a section of the code that outlines standards for the development of income-based housing. Not every councilor is on board.

The public hearing on this project, including the attached provision, is slated for Wednesday, Aug. 5 at 5 p.m. Residents can weigh in remotely. Details on how to access the meeting are forthcoming. At that same public hearing, the town council will hear comment on a proposal to increase the number of days a short-term rental property outside of village limits can be rented each year from 90 to 120 days.

Law exemption?

The provision attached to the proposed land reclassification, which would allow Barile to be exempt from Section 5.6 of the town land use code, became a point of contention on Tuesday as town councilors and the chairman of the Joint Review Board questioned Barile on why he wanted the exemption.

The discussion became heated when Joint Review Board Chairman Bill Hurley pressed the developer for an explanation of what the exemption would effectively do, and how much money Barile stood to lose if he isn’t granted an exemption.

“If you’re going to ask for this in a change of the law, it’s got to be defined,” Hurley said. Later, he added: “The public doesn’t know what’s being granted.”

In response, Barile shared concerns he has with a part of the law that requires developers who build more than 10 new units to either allocate a certain number of them to income-based housing — usually one affordable unit for every 10 units built — or pay a fee into an approved nonprofit housing fund.

Barile is planning to build 360 units. Of those, he expects 66% to be deed-restricted, and in line with the town’s definition of what’s considered income-based housing, which means affordable to someone making up to 120% of the average median income, or $84,360 per year.

But an option agreement was signed by the town earlier this year, further complicating things.

The option agreement gave the town the exclusive option to buy this property from PEG Enterprises — an option that has since been transferred to Barile. But the agreement also mandated that at least 66% of units built there be rented at a rate affordable to someone who makes no more than 150%, not 120%, of the average median income for Essex County.

It’s in part because of this discrepancy that town Councilor Emily Politi argued that Barile shouldn’t be exempt from Section 5.6 of the town’s land use code.

“If you go to 120%, you have a much better argument to be exempt from that,” she said. “I’m one of five (councilors), who thinks that there’s a reason to exempt you from that (section) if you keep everything below 120% and don’t go to 150%.”

“My thought is that we’re satisfying quite a bit of your (housing) needs, so we shouldn’t be penalized, say, $10,000 per resident to go into a fund,” Barile said.

“It’s not a fund,” Politi said. “You have the units there.”

Barile estimated that he’d have to pay upward of $3.6 million into a housing trust if he’s not exempt from the law. It’s unclear how he arrived at that figure.

“If I have to do that,” Barile said of his estimate, “I walk.”

Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism Chief of Staff Mary Jane Lawrence intervened in the conversation via teleconferencing software and attempted to quell the line of questioning, suggesting instead that a committee be formed to hash out the details later on. Town Supervisor Jay Rand cut in, defending Hurley’s question — and the town council’s right to ask questions of the developer.

“The purpose of tonight’s meeting is to give people the opportunity to get a better understanding and to convey whatever issues and questions they have,” Rand said.

Locals only?

Another question Politi had for Barile: Will there be a residency requirement for the units?

“We wouldn’t want, because you couldn’t rent it, up to 60% going to vacationers,” she said. Later, she added: “I would hate to see this turn into a project where 60% of the units don’t go to local people.”

Barile said a sublease restriction would likely cut down on that possibility, “so it’s not an income-producing piece of property for them.”

A homeowners association would be tasked with enforcing that, Barile added.

When pressed by Councilor Richard Cummings on whether he would give preference to local people looking to rent, Barile hedged, saying he had to speak with a lawyer first about whether that would qualify as discrimination.

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